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Greetings from the Yorkshire Dales. At the top of Nidderdale, close to our base in Ripon, the grass is lime green and crisscrossed by dry stone walls. The troubles of the world seem very far away. The sturdy walls and barns as well as the abundant wildlife create the impression that life doesn't change much in these parts.
This idea of stability is untrue. From changes to the weather and ecology, to the way of life, to the composition of the communities, the transformation in these parts is as marked as any of our great cities. In my update this month, with the backdrop of rapidly increasing food prices, I want to discuss the need for the future of food to be engaged with by the population - rural and urban alike - and for our best and brightest to engage with these issues.
The urgency of rising food prices, understandably, prohibits any popular understanding of how we have got to this point, or that we need a root and branch rethink of our food systems. At present, these price rises show no sign of running out of steam. According to the Office of National Statistics, the price of food had already risen by 5.9% until mid-March on last year. In a mass food culture that rests upon cheap, squeezed food, this is nothing short of catastrophic.
It's not just the war in Ukraine that has caused this. In 2020, farm incomes fell by 20% in the face of Brexit, poor weather, and the pandemic. These shocks have not only led to inflation but are destabilising a fragile food supply chain. This has been caused by a race to the bottom and degradation of our food culture unleashed by the supermarkets saw many thousands of family farms close, unable to operate on the thinner and thinner margins. This trend also shows no sign of running out of momentum. The number of farms is projected to fall from 54,000 in 2020 to just 42,300 by 2030. Today, the UK produces about 54% of its own food. In 1984, that figure was 78%.
I am frequently asked if this matters when I raise the subject. It absolutely matters if we are to weather the shocks to global supply chains. France, which is largely self-sufficient in food has weathered these shocks much better than we have and this year recorded inflation of just 3.8%.
The cheap food system, it seems, must be defended at all costs. I find it startling that what caused this fragility to our farming sector is now being touted as the solution: cheap food from overseas. Unable to rely on our hollowed-out farming sector for food, new trade deals mean we shall now import it from Australia and New Zealand.
Of course, the population has also increased during since the 1980s, while the land available for cultivation has shrunk. Today, there is no silver bullet to bring about an ideal food supply. Recent recognition that our food systems fragile is a start. What we really need is public awareness that on our current trajectory, we are sleep walking to a real catastrophe.
With some notable exceptions, especially around food waste and delivery, there has been a dearth of new ideas for mass food supply. It is easy to forget that we made the systems that currently supply us with food, and we can just as easily reshape them if the will is there. Under pressure from above, the trend for many years has been supply chains and volumes getting bigger, and small farms struggling. The closure of small abattoirs up and down the country are just one example of how food supply chains have become standardised and bigger.
'New ideas' is a loose term, and easily dismissed, but the urgency is very real. For many years now, the best and brightest have headed to the tech sector or the City of London. Disruption in these sectors to business and our daily lives is celebrated, all the while the countryside has been exposed to global trends and neglected. I count my own business as a disrupter and I know how hard it can be to swim against the current. Even within the food sector, I have been routinely disbelieved that Farmison & Co has the ability to sell meat by breed and farm. It is seen as far too complicated to engage with individual farms (and animals) to be possible at scale.
On the contrary, we are an example of what can be achieved when food supply is reimagined. This is going to take a holistic approach. farmers, climate t and many more besides. In the face of climate change, not only do we need to be more self-sufficient, but we need to be eating a balanced, seasonal diet sourced from close to home. It's for this reason I believe the headlines should not be about the rises in the cost of food. Rather, they should be about how these prices expose our fragility, how they threaten the progress we've made, and if we do not urgently engage with these issues, that we are condemned to further instability.
Thank you. If you have any comments or feedback, please do not hesitate to reach out to me via [email protected]. I always make time to read your comments.
Founder & CEO of Farmison & Co